Kickoff is quickly drawing closer and to help you get ready for UK-Florida, as if you needed any help, the Cats Illustrated staff goes to the round table to make predictions and discuss the game.
What are your keys to the game for a Kentucky win on Saturday?
T.J. Walker, Basketball Recruiting Analyst: Florida's offense stinks, so a major key for Kentucky will be to not give up the big play. That's one of two ways the Wildcats lose on Saturday. If UK allows Florida to break a big run, or the Gators beat UK's secondary on a bomb, that could crush Kentucky's chances. Another key is Kentucky being protective of the ball in its own territory. Turnovers will likely happen for both teams, but the Cats can't turn it over when they're pinned back deep in their own territory.
Jeff Drummond, Managing Editor: Having watched both of Florida's games now, I believe UK is going to be able to move the ball against the Gators. Both Michigan and Tennessee were able to run the ball successfully, combining to average close to 5.0 yards per carry. Florida has its trademark speed, but I don't see the physicality. That being said, the Gators are really stingy when you get down in the red zone. The Cats have to make the most of their scoring opportunities.
Warren Taylor, Staff Writer: The biggest key to a streak-breaking win by Kentucky this week is stopping the run. The Gators ran hog wild over Mark Stoops' team last season in Gainesville. So far this season Florida is only averaging 90 yards on the ground. If Kentucky holds the Gators to their season average, it will take away a security blanket and force the Gators to throw the ball. So far neither Feleipe Franks or Malik Zaire have proven they can consistently throw the ball deep. If the Gators fall behind and need to air it out, Kentucky's talented secondary will make them pay at some point Saturday night.
Adam Luckett: Special Contributor: Kentucky must take care of the ball and not give up the vertical pass to Feliepe Franks. Florida is a defense that thrives on turnovers and they already have three defensive touchdowns on the season. In 2015, the game went on a 14-point swing as Dorian Baker dropped a touchdown pass and two plays later Vernon Hargreaves returned an interception inside the 10. If Kentucky is able to protect the ball, they will be able to play complimentary football and put an offense that is really struggling in long field situations.
Meanwhile, Franks is player that has a lot of tools but still has a long way to go to be an effective Power Five quarterback. The redshirt freshman is consistently high on intermediate throws and still has footwork issues. But the one thing he does well is throw it deep and Kentucky needs to be ready for that. If the Wildcats take that a way, it’s going to be very hard for Florida to put long scoring drives together.
Justin Rowland, Publisher: Kentucky has to consistently generate positive plays on first down to set up favorable down and distance situations. If they do that, it means they will probably fare well on third down. If they do that, it means they're successfully executing a ball control offense that has been so good to them over these last 14 or so games. This is not a team that's built to win games if it consistently sees 3rd and 7 or worse.
What are the biggest concerns Kentucky coaches or fans should have going into Saturday?
T.J. Walker, Basketball Recruiting Analyst: Florida's defense. I would expect the Gators to stack the box and force the Cats to beat them through the air. While Florida is missing a slew of players, including possibly its best cornerback, the Gators always have athletes in the secondary. The Gators will trust their secondary in plenty of one-on-one coverage while making sure Benny Snell is stopped in the run game. Can UK's receivers come up big? Can Stephen Johnson make the necessary throws? That will decide the game.
Jeff Drummond, Managing Editor: Listening to Stoops & Co. talk this week, you can tell there's a concerted effort to guard against coming into this game too hyped up. The Cats are coming off an emotional win at South Carolina, and it's impossible for the players not to avoid all the "This is the year the streak ends!" comments around campus and on social media. It's going to take four quarters of focused play to beat the Gators. They can't expend it all in the opening moments of the game and then falter. Look what happened to South Carolina last week.
Warren Taylor, Staff Writer: Kentucky fans and coaches have only one thing to fear Saturday: history. Twice Kentucky was in prime position to slay the Gators, in 2003 and 2015, and a freshman quarterback stepped up to steady the Boys from Old Florida. Future national champion Chris Leak, in his first road start, overcame two early interceptions to lead his team on critical touchdown drives late in the game to cut into Kentucky's 21-3 lead; setting up Johnny Lamar's crucial interception and Ran Carthon's game-winning one-yard plunge. In 2015 current West Virginia starter Will Grier burned the Cats on third downs with his legs, extending several drives, in a 14-9 heartbreaker. Feleipe Frank is making his first road start. He has a cannon for an arm and won last week's classic against Tennessee with a gorgeous Hail Mary. Momentum and said arm make him another potential villain in the agonizing 30-year streak.
Adam Luckett: Special Contributor: An early deficit. In the games UK has kept it close against Florida (2014, 2015), the Gators have gotten out to an early lead. In the huge game against Auburn in 2015, UK found themselves down by two touchdowns at half. Kentucky has had crazy crowds in these big games and they’ve been taken out early due to the team falling behind. If Kentucky can get a score early and keep the crowd in it, it’s going to be fairly hard for a Florida offense with a freshman making his first ever road start to be too aggressive. It’s important for UK to keep momentum on their side for most of the night, so the nervousness of the streak doesn’t become too much. The crowd is going to be on fire to start the game and the last thing you need is for them to be taken out early.
Justin Rowland, Publisher: First, blocking Florida's pass rush, especially from those ends, will not be easy. Landon Young and Kyle Meadows have their work cut out for them. Second, even if the blocking holds up, Florida's secondary - though it's young and has some questions, re: Duke Dawson's health - is very dangerous and can change a game. Finally, special teams. Kentucky's been good there two out of three weeks, but Florida is very sound and could be explosive as well. If the special teams of the EKU game shows up, that's trouble.
Who will be Kentucky's MVP and why?
T.J. Walker, Basketball Recruiting Analyst: Kentucky's MVP will be Stephen Johnson. As I mentioned, Florida will likely make him throw the ball and we have seen Johnson come up big in important games. Kentucky's team knows what's at stake on Saturday and no player more than Johnson. Expect him to have a solid throwing outing, plus possibly several big runs.
Jeff Drummond, Managing Editor: Mike Edwards. I think Florida's Feleipe Franks will to test the Cats' pass defense down the field, and UK's ball-hawking safety is going to have some opportunities to make big plays.
Warren Taylor, Staff Writer: Stephen Johnson. To beat a dead horse, Johnson puts Kentucky on his back when the team needs it. His lights-out second-half against EKU helped the Cats avoid a humiliating upset. When South Carolina had the Cats in the their sights late in Columbia, Johnson iced the game with his 54-yard scramble on 3rd down. Chances are, he will make another play if Kentucky gets in a sticky spot this week.
Adam Luckett: Special Contributor: Tavin Richardson. Duke Dawson is in concussion protocol as of this moment and he is Florida’s only experienced corner. Dawson is the best nickelback in the country and if he can’t go sophomore safety Chauncey Gardner is going to have to slide down to nickel from his safety position. True freshmen corners CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson will play nearly ever snap on the outside. With a bunch of rookies making their first road start, Kentucky should be able to get the young guns to bite on play-action fake or a double move in the game. The defense will be keyed on Garrett Johnson and the Florida secondary has been seeing film of Blake Bone’s receptions against EKU all week. That leaves Tavin Richardson who is UK’s best option to get open on the deep post that Stephen Johnson loves to throw (they just missed on one against Southern Miss). With the shuffling going on with a young secondary, there should be some coverage busts and Eddie Gran will be able to get something dialed up after giving the Florida front a heavy dose of power. UK will connect on multiple deep shots and my guess is that Richardson comes down with them.
Justin Rowland, Publisher: C.J. Conrad. Both teams will probably be more comfortable playing a lower scoring game so defense and special teams will be at a premium, but the Cats will still have to generate some solid gains and big plays. Conrad is averaging 20 yards per target this season and has been the most reliable, effective skill weapon the Cats have.
What's your score and outcome prediction?
T.J. Walker, Basketball Recruiting Analyst: Kentucky 24, Florida 16. The streak ends on Saturday. The Cats may have actually have more talent than the shorthanded Gators, but Kentucky's home-field advantage will be too much for Florida (who's playing its first true road game) to overcome.
Jeff Drummond, Managing Editor: Florida 24, Kentucky 23. After making an incorrect prediction on quite a few of these UK-Florida games over the last 30 years, I made a vow many moons ago that I'd never pick the Cats again until I saw it happen. I'm not living on a billboard, but I am wearing my tattered parachute pants from 1986. This could very well be the year -- I think UK may be the better team -- but I am contractually obligated to submit this heartbreaker.
Warren Taylor, Staff Writer: 24-17 Kentucky. All week during practice, the Kentucky coaches and players exuded a calm aura about the game. They looked ready to take care of business. A mature and workmanlike approach suits this football team, and that will benefit them the most it what should be a tight, physical football game.
Adam Luckett: Special Contributor: Kentucky 24-13. Expects both teams to start out very vanilla after both take vertical shots on their first possession. Neither team wants to make a mistake and both are very comfortable with punting and making the opponent go a long drive against their defense. In this matchup, I trust Stephen Johnson and Eddie Gran more than I do Feliepe Franks and Doug Nussmeier. Kentucky will take advantage of some young corners and will connect on some vertical pass plays. It’s a one possession game going into the fourth quarter but Kentucky pulls away by producing two fourth quarter turnovers. The celebration will start around the three minute mark of the final quarter and Saturday night will be something UK’s fans remember for the rest of their lives.
Justin Rowland, Publisher: Kentucky 27, Florida 16. Everything points to a minor Kentucky upset win (if you believe the lines) in my mind. Edge in quarterback experience, sold out home field advantage, an edge in the box and a team that's 10-14 over its last 14.